Make a Knife Block - Canadian Woodworking Magazine

Home Project: This challenging project will get lots of use over the years, and will allow you to show off your woodworking skills.

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Make a Knife Block



Photos by Wolf Moehrle; Illustration by Len Churchill

INFO:DIFFICULTY – 4/5,
LENGTH/TIME – 3/5,
COST – 1/5,
SPECIAL TECHNIQUES
– Precise Measuring, Angles
 
My son recently turned 18 and has a passion for the culinary arts, so I decided to buy him a set of high-end kitchen knives. As soon as I made the purchase I began thinking about making a unique wooden block for them, as I have always preferred to give handcrafted gifts. Since my son is left-handed, I angled the knives so he could comfortably grasp them. If this is for a right-hander, I would suggest making the mirror image of this block.

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Each knife rests at a 25° angle to the table surface, but they are also at a 5° angle to one another, creating a slight fanning of the handles. Only the honing steel is parallel with the table. I combined hickory, mahogany and walnut for this block. I had a small piece of figured South American mahogany that I was able to use for the two sides.

Trace the knives
Each blade has its own small block and these are later laminated together to make one large block. I created a full size drawing to determine the sizes of all the components. The important thing is to trace around each knife blade and incorporate the size and shape into the design.
 
To make the blocks for each knife, I started by laminating pieces of veneer together to create the slot for each blade. I mixed and matched veneer until I had a thickness that was just slightly larger than the blade. The veneer was then cut to pieces 3-1/2" wide and slightly longer than finished size, and laminated together in a simple press, consisting of two flat pieces of wood slightly larger than the pieces of veneer.
 
I traced around each knife on heavy paper and cut away some of the paper around the pencil line so I could trace the image onto the veneer core. Then I draw a line down the center of the veneer core and trace the knife blade onto each one. Remember to allow for at least 1/4" for waste at the open end. The shape of each blade is then cut out.
 
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Exact Size and Shape – Moehrle traced the profile of the knives onto some paper, then cut them out. These templates were used to mark the cut-outs on the spacers that will fit between the 3/4” thick pieces.

The hickory for each blade was machined into sections 3/4" thick, 3-1/2" wide, and length determined by the drawing. The width of these pieces is critical and must be consistent because of the set-up we’ll be using to machine the purely cosmetic mahogany inserts. On the ends of the hickory pieces I mark where the mahogany insert will go. Then, using a straight cutter in my router table, I remove the material from the center of the piece, 1/8 " deep. To get this groove exactly in the center, I set up the machine so I can make one cut and flip the piece around and make a second cut – this is why the parts must all be exactly uniform in width. When I have removed the material from the center of the groove, I switch to a 1/2" round-nose cutter to put the radius on the outsides of the groove.
 
I then mill some mahogany strips to a thickness equal to the depth of the groove in the hickory parts, but just a touch wider. To put the radius on the outsides of these strips, I used a standard Freud #34-120 1/4" round-over bit and made up a special feather-board that will firmly hold the part against the table as I pass it over the cutter. It will also act as a guard for safety. There is a small ramp on the end of this feather-board so it will ride up over the part as I feed it in from one side. I test the fit in the groove and if the part is too wide I can adjust the fence on the router table to take another small cut until I get an exact fit.
 
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Round the Blade Slot Fillers – So the blade slot fillers fit tight in the rounded-edge groove, they need to have their edges rounded. Moehrle used a specially made feather-board that doubled as a hold-down device. It’s also a good idea to keep these parts extra-long so you have something to hold onto while machining.
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Rout Knife Grooves – Use a straight router bit to remove most of the waste in one face of each of the knife sections (left), then use a round-nosed bit to create the curved edge on the groove (right).
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Perfect Fit – The mahogany blade slot fillers seat nicely in the knife sections.
 
Initial assembly
The parts for each knife are now ready to be assembled, but in order to prevent the parts from shifting under the pressure of the clamps, I want to install some positioning pins to hold them in place. I make these small dowels out of toothpicks with the tapered ends cut off. A numbered drill bit gives me the exact hole size. I line up the center laminated part over one side of the hickory/ mahogany part, drill three small holes and tap in the small dowel. They are then trimmed off so they do not extend above the center laminated part.
 
I also want to be sure that the glue will not squeeze into the knife slots as this would be very difficult to clean out. I carved a ‘glue groove’ into the mahogany insert about 1/8 " away from the outer side of each blade. This groove will never be seen so it doesn’t have to be perfect.
 
The parts are now ready to be assembled. Don’t forget to mark which side is ‘up’ as you don’t want to get this wrong.
 
When these are removed from the clamps I draw lines onto the edges of each part showing the 2.5° of material that will have to be removed from each side to produce the 5° angle between each knife. This material can be cut away on the bandsaw then cleaned up on the jointer, or you can make a planer jig.
 
Now I draw a 25° angled line on each end and I transfer these marks to the top and bottom of the part. This is now the new center line. Position the parts so the new center lines are aligned and mark this location with a sharp pencil. Don’t forget that each part has to be set back slightly to allow for the curve at the front of the knife block. Again I use toothpick dowels to prevent the parts from shifting during the gluing process, and glue all three parts together.
 
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Ready for Glue – With all the parts ready, Moehrle added tiny toothpick-dowels to eliminate slippage during glue-up, then laminated everything together. Notice the shallow grooves in the mahogany blade slot fillers; these stop glue from squeezing into the knife cavity.
 
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Angle the Parts – Because there is a 5˚ angle between each knife Moehrle angles each knife section to approx. 2.5˚ on the bandsaw. He then cleans the faces up with a jointer.
 
Block base
Next I glue up hickory stock to make the base of the block. While doing this, I keep in mind the simple dado slot that will hold the honing steel, and machine it appropriately. I also cut a glue groove on each side of this dado to prevent glue from squeezing in. I set my bandsaw to make a 25° cut and remove the upper part of the base not forgetting to include the 2.5° drop from front to back.
 
As before, I use small toothpick dowels to locate the base on the upper section. For gluing I used some scrap wood to make two cauls that will hold the base at a 25° angle so the clamps are properly seated. Be careful not to over-tighten the clamps here as the small dowels can sheer off under the pressure. When the glue has set, machine the block’s sides flat on the jointer.
 
Side panels
For the sides of the block I mill up two pieces of 1/4" thick black walnut, slightly larger than the finished knife block. On the inside of each of the sides I laminated a piece of thick walnut veneer and a thin piece of a light-coloured wood to create a decorative line. Onto the outside I glued the figured South American mahogany, which is close in colour to the walnut.
 
These are glued up in a simple laminating press using clamping cauls. The cauls have a slight round on one side so when they come together on the ends, I know there is good pressure in the center. I use aluminium foil to prevent the part from adhering to the press.

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The finished shape of the knife block is traced onto the two sides and the hickory center section. To prevent the side panels from shifting during the gluing process I drill two holes near the bottom into what will later be cut away as waste and drive in screws.
 
When clamping the sides to the center I made up some small wedges for under the clamps to compensate for the angle of the sides, and under these I use larger solid wood cauls to ensure even pressure. Remove the screws once the glue is dry.
 
Angled and Stepped – Moehrle marks a 25˚ line through the center of each knife assembly. Once the three assemblies are glued together, these lines will appear continuous when viewed straight on. The assemblies are also set back slightly as they rise, keeping the future curved front in mind.

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Add the Base – Once the base has been machined with the rectangular groove, and its top angled to 25˚, it can be glued to the rest of the assembly. Special cauls were made so clamps could apply force to the base without slipping. Small toothpick dowels were also used to eliminate movement during glue-up.
 
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Jointed Sides – After the block has been partially assembled, its sides can be jointed flat.
Decorative arch
The decorative recessed arch cut into the sides should be done next because you want the part to be as large as possible for maximum stability on the table, and I really struggled to come up with a method of cutting these. They are about 3/8" deep, and in my mind I ran through countless scenarios as to how this could be done quickly and easily – and I’m very happy with the solution I came up with. The cutter I’m using is a Freud Dish Carving Bit #19-126 because it produces the radius of a ball-nose cutter and also has the flat top to produce a nice flat surface. I cut a 3/4" hole into a piece of 1/4" plywood and clamped it over my router table. Then I used a plastic bottle cap about 1-1/2" diameter and also cut a 3/4" hole into the center of it. I sanded the edge down to a little less than the thickness of my template so the part would just clear it, and using very small screws I secured it to the plywood over the cutter.
 
The template is held to the part with double-sided tape, and using a circular sweeping motion I removed the material right up to my template, first at a depth of about 5/16" and then I raised the cutter for a final lighter pass.
 
Because the sides of this project are angled at 10°, I needed to be able to hold it at this angle for cutting out the bottom and around the outside. So I made a simple cradling jig for this purpose.
 
When cutting the front of the block, where the knife slots are, it’s difficult to know just how much material you’re removing, and you don’t want to remove too much or the knives will bottom out. So I marked the lengths of the blades on a piece of veneer and made my first cut well away from my mark. I could then check the depth and go deeper until each slot was perfect. And when I had it just right, I cut out the back and bottom of the block.
 
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Ready for Curves – A paper template is used to mark curves on the main assembly. With the waste sections now more obvious, small screws or nails can be used to locate the side panels while they are being adhered to the rest of the knife block.
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Tricky Glue-Up – Moehrle uses 3/4” thick cauls and simple wedges to keep pressure even while gluing the side panels to the main assembly.
 
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Curved Cavity – Moehrle had to get creative when it came to creating the decorative arch. He re-purposed a red plastic bottle cap and attached it to a panel he clamped to his router table. A curved template attached to the knife block rode against the bottle cap, while a dish carving bit removed the material.
Start sanding
My combination sanding machine is perfect for small projects like this. For the chamfer around the outside I tilted the sanding disk table and removed material up to the light-coloured veneer layer. A router chamfering bit will likely chip out the material, so avoid the temptation.

For sanding the underside, I use my oscillating spindle with the cradling jig. For sanding the inside of the recessed cut on the sides I use a homemade sanding drum that sands both the radius and the flat surface. It has a thin strip of sandpaper held on with a hose clamp, and it works surprisingly well. I just chuck it in the drill press and hold the part up against it, and it’s all done by feel.
 
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A Jig For Angles – Since the sides are angled, relative to the base and top, this jig was created. It would hold the block on a 10˚ angle so the bottom and top could be bandsawn and sanded smooth.
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Shopmade Sanding Drum – To sand the inner curved area around the decorative arch, Moehrle rigged up this custom sanding drum. He wrapped a folded over piece of cotton cloth around the end of a standard sanding drum, then fixed a strip of sandpaper on the sides and end with a hose clamp. Once chucked in a drill press, it works like a charm.Fine-Tune the Openings – The openings will have to be widened slightly so the knives can be easily and smoothly inserted into their homes.
The inscription carved into the side is created with a Runic font called Angertas Moria online (thehutt.de/tolkien/fonts.html). You can install this on your computer and convert anything you type into this font. The carving on this project is a line from Shakespeare that reads, “If music be the food of love, play on”.
 
I transferred the design to the wood using tracing paper, and carved it with a standard utility knife.
 
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Carved Inscription – Moehrle carved some characters in the side of the block with a sharp utility knife.
 
To finish off the openings of the knife slots, I widen the base of the openings to create a custom fit for each knife. They’re all a little different and the heel of the blade tends to flare out, so you’ll want to create a nice clean fit. To sand the opening, wrap a strip of sandpaper around a thin piece of wood or metal.
 
I used a natural paste made from beeswax and mineral oil to finish the block, working it into the carved letters with a toothbrush.
 
WOLF MOEHRLE
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When not making guitars or furniture, Wolf attempts to earn an honest living as a long-haul driver. He loves his little wood shop, but spends too many lonely hours listening to Willie Nelson amongst the tumbleweeds.